By JENNIFER HLAD
ANNAPOLIS (March 02, 2010)—A coalition of environmental groups is suing Perdue Farms Inc. and a farm that contracts with Perdue, saying the farm illegally discharged "harmful pollution" into the Pocomoke River.
The Assateague Coastal Trust and the Waterkeeper Alliance in December filed a 60-day notice of intent to sue after Assateague Coastkeeper Kathy Phillips said she sampled water flowing from Hudson Farms on Logtown Road in Berlin and found high levels of bacteria.
That bacteria included levels of fecal coliform and E. coli in concentrations far exceeding state limits, Phillips said.
The Hudson family could not be reached for comment. Luis Luna, a spokesman for Perdue Farms Inc., said he could not comment on pending litigation.
Phillips described the Assateague Coastkeeper position as an "on-the-water advocate who patrols and protects the Maryland and northern Virginia Eastern Shore."
She said she regularly monitors the watershed, looking for any source of pollution. Phillips said she was on a regular monitoring flight from the Ocean City airport when she saw standing water and piles of waste near drainage ditches on the Hudson farm.
Phillips took photos from the plane, then used Google Earth and other maps and geological surveys to determine what direction the water was flowing, she said. She took water samples from a publicly accessible area near the farm in late September and continues to test the water now, she said.
The Assateague Coastkeeper and Waterkeeper Alliance announced on Dec. 17 they had filed a letter of intent to sue, noting uncovered manure piles on the property. Maryland Department of the Environment officials inspected the farm Dec. 18, 21 and 23, and Jan. 7, said Dawn Stoltzfus, a spokeswoman for MDE.
The inspectors saw a "large stockpile of Class A sewage sludge"—not manure—stored next to a waterway. At MDE's request, the sludge was moved to a covered area away from a drainage ditch, Stoltzfus said.
The farm owners also made other changes to make sure the material was not in a position to pollute waterways, she said.
The MDE inspectors performed a detailed assessment Jan. 26, taking samples of the sludge and water samples at various locations along the drainage ditch, Stoltzfus said. The samples showed high levels of bacteria, Stoltzfus said, but since the results are still being analyzed, she can't comment further on them.
Phillips said the type of waste in the pile—chicken manure or sewage sludge—is not the point.
Scott Edwards, director of advocacy for the Waterkeeper Alliance, said group representatives were not able to go onto the farm. But he said the farming industry has operated "in secret for so many years," it is hard to determine exactly what is going on.
Phillips said she can see some of the methods by traveling around the Eastern Shore. Some farms are doing the right thing, she said, but this one caught her eye because of the piles of waste near the back of the farm.
"Poultry growers who do the responsible thing, who keep their facility clean, it costs them money to make that extra effort, but they're out there doing it," she said.
The lawsuit asks for $37,500 per day of violation, though the number of days of violation would be determined in court, said Jane Barrett, director of the University of Maryland School of Law's Environmental Law Clinic, and one of the attorneys involved in the lawsuit.
Phillips said the lawsuit is not anti-farm or anti-agriculture.
But Edwards repeatedly criticized the poultry farming industry—and said he thinks federal guidelines that allow open storage of waste for 14 days are "irresponsible."
"The notion of the family farm is long gone here in the United States," he said. "These aren't the pastoral, bucolic activities that people think of. These are factories."
Capital News Service contributed to this report.